Why do we feel so satisfied when we engage our creativity? Why is singing, writing a play, cooking a wonderful meal, designing a building or outfit, composing a song or sonata, capturing a particular moment in a photograph, or coming up with a new idea, method, or a way of looking at things in the brainstorming session at work so fulfilling? Why does using our imagination feel so wonderful? Why does making the metaphor that perfectly describes something by comparing it to something else feel so gratifying? Why do people make art anyway? Why do people write?
A man is struggling to go on after losing someone he loves. A beloved wife. I ask him to try a simple writing exercise, and he runs with it. He is not a "poet," but he produces poetry, beautiful and true. He has turned pain into beauty, and he finds the process satisfying, cathartic, healing.
Or take my own experience. I was already a writer when I lost my son in 1994, and yet afterward I simply refused to write for a number of years. I refused because writing was what I did before, and that life seemed over. But the problem was I was cutting off my most available path to self-healing: my writing, my own creativity. It was only out of sheer desperation that I began writing again three years later. It turned out that the process of writing (my novel, Saving Elijah) was the very thing that helped me free myself from the prison and the merciless solitude of my sorrow. Writing that book saved my life. Everything I write now contributes in some way to my own self-healing process.
And it isn't the applause we might crave at the end of our creative process that drives us, or that heals us. It's the process itself. A writing mentor of mine always says, "Writing is a process, not an event." This is, of course, true of all creative acts. If you're worrying about how what you're doing will be received, your desire for acclaim, or your fear of rejection, you simply aren't in the process.
I was recently honored and thrilled to be a part of an extraordinary gathering in San Rafael, California called The Healing Art of Writing. The conference drew physicians, medical students, psychologists, social workers, poets, a musician or two, and other helpers, healers, artists, and writers interested in the healing power of creative expression, in this case writing. Just being in the presence of so many people accessing their own creativity or learning to facilitate creativity in others to heal was incredibly moving and healing.
Why is the creative process so healing? I'm convinced that when we engage in creative expression–through writing, art, coming up with that new idea, or in whatever way we can – we feel healed because we have moved back into or toward our original state of creative bliss, a state from which we gradually separated in response to the reality of life and the demands of a sometimes harsh world.
Consider my grand daughter. She's two, and her creative spirit is still completely pure. Every moment of every day she is deep into her own creative process, she lives in a wellspring of pure joy at her own imagination and creativity. When she walks down the street, she doesn't just walk, she claps, dances, or skips, and she sings or tells herself a story at the top of her little lungs. Her song might be one she's making up or one my daughter taught her, and her story might be about the moon and stars, or Elmo, or a purple cow. She doesn't care that cows are black and white, in her mind and creative imagination they can also be purple. Everyone on the street smiles, as if to acknowledge how adorable she is, maybe to share in the knowledge that children are such creative little souls who unlike the rest of us can live so in the moment, so in the creative process, unconcerned with outcome. Watch my granddaughter now as she becomes angry and has a tantrum when you tell her to do something other than the incredibly creative thing she is doing at this very moment. She doesn't care that you might be trying to save her life when you insist she stop clapping and hold your hand because you're going to cross the busy street. All she knows is that you've interrupted her creative process, her joyous in-the-moment creativity.
You can see the effect this kind of interruption has as a child gets older. Few ten or fourteen-year-olds would skip and dance down the street singing at the top of their lungs, for fear of the outcome, the rejection.
A loving, nurturing, encouraging environment in childhood supports a person's ability to appropriately access his or her own creativity as a source of self-healing. I always feel so sad when I sit with people who were subjected to a non-nurturing, restrictive, neglectful, abusive, traumatic, or rigid environment that stifled their once-brilliant creativity, and even made them lose their ability to connect back to it as a way of self-healing. Some are virtually paralyzed by self-condemnation, just as I was after my son died. Some cannot even begin imagine their lives differently. They continue to think the condemning thoughts and feel the hurtful feelings others have foisted upon them, a process that destroys rather than creates.
So remember that no matter what field you're in, or where you are in your life, or what trauma you've experienced, you always have the power to connect to your original state of creative bliss, and even use the process of creating as a way of self-healing That little child is still in there, singing blissfully at the top of her lungs. All you have to do is find her.
The above article was first published at The Bruised Muse on July 30, 2012 and is reproduced with permission of the author, Fran Dorf.
Fran Dorf is the author of three internationally published, acclaimed works of fiction: A Reasonable Madness (Birch Lane/Signet); Flight (Dutton Signet) and Saving Elijah (Putnam). Fran is also a psychotherapist and expert on bereavement. She's working on a memoir, and she blogs on life, grief, and everything in between at The Bruised Muse.